Beijing must ensure Chinese fishermen act responsibly and within international laws

China risks disputes – like the one near Argentina – escalating into wider conflicts as huge demand for seafood sends trawlers far and wide

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 March, 2016, 11:22pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 March, 2016, 11:22pm

China’s appetite for seafood is such that demand is threatening world stocks. Boats in the 70,000-strong fishing fleet are going ever-further afield, increasingly flaunting the regulations and laws in search of catches. There are environmental, ecological and diplomatic consequences. The Argentinian navy’s sinking with gunfire last week of a Chinese-flagged ship that had been operating illegally in waters half a world away from home highlights the problem and need for Beijing’s action.

Chinese eat 50 million tonnes of fish a year, more than the combined figure for the next 10 nations, and by 2030, consumption is predicted to reach 38 per cent of the global total. Poor water quality has harmed China’s aquaculture industry and overfishing has depleted domestic and neighbouring waters. Global policies to sustain fisheries are struggling to keep pace with demand.

The foreign ministry has called for a full investigation into the Argentinian incident, in which four fishermen from the sinking ship were picked up by an Argentinian navy vessel and arrested. A row is also brewing with Indonesia after a Chinese fishing boat allegedly operating without a permit was intercepted by surveillance ships near the Natuna Islands on Saturday, sparking a confrontation with two Chinese coastguard vessels. Complaints about infringements are frequent in the East and South China seas and as far as the coast of West Africa. Fisheries monitors contend that a significant portion of China’s catch comes through illegal, unreported or unregulated means.

Chinese fishing boats are not the only culprits; fishermen throughout the world are going far beyond domestic waters to satisfy a hunger that is stretching resources to breaking point. Biologists believe that the depletion in ocean life is an environmental calamity second only to climate change. The Global Ocean Commission, an international initiative formed to raise awareness, believes 18 per cent of the world’s catch is taken illegally. That puts pressure on fish stocks, but also creates unfair competition, penalises law-abiding fishermen, harms fishing communities and undermines conservation efforts.

China risks fishing disputes escalating into wider conflicts. It needs to address the supply and demand imbalance through education. Cooperation and coordination with other governments are necessary to prevent disputes from escalating. It has to ensure its fishermen act responsibly and safely, following laws and rules, wherever they go.